Mental health disorders in children in Australia are on the rise. The latest statistics available suggest that almost 14% of children aged between 4 and 17 have experienced a mental disorder such as anxiety at some point in their young lives. In the absence of appropriate support, children can develop unhealthy habits and sometimes risky coping strategies. For example, 11% of young people between 15 and 24 smoke daily and 39% drink unsafe levels alcohol. These statistics are scary. So how do we give our kids the best possible chance of making good choices for themselves now and in the future? Building mental well-being in kids is important.
As much as we try, we can’t always protect our kids from feeling big emotions and ending up in tricky situations. Sometimes the world is going to throw some heavy stuff their way, and we won’t always be there to shield them from feelings of hurt, disappointment, fear or anger. The best we can do to protect our kids from long lasting harm is to help them build their resilience and develop good protective factors. Here are 10 things you can do to build mental well-being and resilience in your child.
1. Let them do things for themselves
Kids learn by doing. Letting them try things for themselves helps to build their self-confidence. It allows them to prove to you they are trustworthy and capable of greater independence. You can start to build your child’s independence gradually from an early age, e.g. ask your toddler to find their shoes, give your preppie the task of unpacking their school bag every day.
2. Encourage your child to learn an instrument
According to studies conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, children who have a strong foundation of emotional literacy tend to have more positive relationships with others, feel happier, and even do better academically. Research has found a link between learning music and development of emotional awareness and emotional literacy.
3. Model the behaviour you want to see in your kids, including expression of appropriate feelings.
Children learn from watching others. They are hardwired to tune into those around them and will often copy what they see. Show them it’s OK to talk about how they feel, that feelings are normal and that it’s human nature to feel scared, angry, and hurt sometimes. Show them how to give their big emotions the time and space to be felt, and show them how to move on when it’s appropriate to do so and the moment has passed.
4. Holding regular family game nights improves mental well-being in kids
A significant protective factor for our children is their strong connections to their family unit. An easy way to foster that connection is through shared play, which can continue even as kids get older. Family board game nights are fun at any age! Family rituals anchor kids to their past and connect them to their roots.
5. Walk and talk
Give your kids plenty of time to debrief with you about their day. Life can be fast-paced and super busy at times. Always find time to slow down and give you and your child the opportunity to reflect. A 15 minute slow ‘walk and talk’ around the block or while chilling on the couch can be extremely powerful. This dedicated time can also aid with transitions if you have a child that struggles with being hurried through the day and from one activity to the next.
6. Promote physical exercise
It’s well documented that physical activity helps to improve health and mental well-being in kids. This, however, does not always mean organised sport. A game of tag, wrestle with the dog, or a dip in the local pool are all excellent options. Organised sport of course does have many benefits for mental health, but it’s not always an option for some families. Any exercise your child can get is good.
7. Encourage appropriate use of social media
Social media, when used appropriately, can allow older kids to strengthen connections with their peers and their family. There is a dark side to social media of course that we are all well aware of, so it’s important to ensure your child’s screen time is well-monitored, and that the rules of social media use are well understood.
8. Let your kids be bored
It’s those moments where nothing is scheduled that gives kids the opportunity to really exercise their imagination. Those higher-level executive functioning skills like problem-solving, initiation and organisation are very much connected with feelings of self-worth and accomplishment. Allowing your kids time to be bored creates space for them to channel their energy into activities that require them to use their whole brain.
9. Give them the tools they need to self-calm and self-regulate
In the early years, our children do rely on their parents to help them manage their big emotions. We call this co-regulation. Over time, kids should learn to rely less on the grown-ups in their life and be more and more able to calm themselves – at least for minor irritations. As well as modelling good self-regulation, you can provide kids with tools to help them calm down e.g. provide a quiet retreat, cubby area or other space that’s just theirs to use when they need to decompress. Other options for self-calming include providing access to music, having a trampoline in the back yard, or keeping a calm down kit on hand with sensory toys that can have a calming effect such as playdough or kinetic sand.
10. Help your child to identify their circle of support
While you hope to be your child’s favourite person, chances are you might not be. It’s important that your child is aware of who their people are – the trusted individuals in their lives who they can count on if they are having a hard time. Sit down and draw this out with your child. Ask them who is in their inner circle. If no one in their inner circle is free to talk, who might be suitable in their wider circle? A teacher, a group leader, or family friend?
If you have any concerns about your child’s mental health, please seek assistance from your General Practitioner. You can also visit www.headspace.org.au for additional support with children’s mental health.
Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019 www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/australias-children/contents/health/children-with-mental-illness
*Ten Things You Can Do To Build Mental Well-being and Resilience in Kids is a guest post by Dr Nicole Grant, and was published in our print issue 39, April/May 2020.